Maintaining the delicate, dynamic balance of power between people and profit

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Scales of Justice – Frankfurt Version by Michael Coghlan 

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint,” said Brazilian Archbishop Hélder Pessoa Câmara. “When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

So forgive me if I sound a tad communist in this blog.

Because the “why” almost always comes down to a matter of power, doesn’t it? That delicate balance of power between employers and employees, the dynamic tension between the drive for shareholders to make a profit and the need for workers to earn a living…

The last century’s most influential, Nobel Prize winning economist, Milton Friedman said: “a corporation’s responsibility is to make as much money for the stockholders as possible.”

I realise it is presumptuous for a mere A level economist to contradict a Nobel Prize winner, but that doesn’t sound very fair to me. There’s an awful lot of people slogging away throughout the supply chain to make the corporation its money – why should just the stockholders (shareholders) get most of the loot? Sure, maybe they should get a bit extra for taking the financial risk, but “as much money as possible…”?

I’d like to put it to the playground test. Children have a powerful sense of fairness. Imagine a group of kids setting out to collect sweets for Halloween. How would it go down if some big kids who provided the costumes decreed that the whole purpose of the exercise was to collect the maximum amount of sweets for them and that the rest – who would be doing the actual collecting – would get just one sweet each? Wouldn’t go down too well, I’d imagine. And there’s a name for kids who make decrees like that.

Friedman did add the caveat to his maximum-money-for-stockholders pronouncement; “so long as it stays within the rules of the game”. But lots of clever business people have found that those rules can be awfully bendy. And that there are an awful lot of shadowy places where rules don’t quite apply…

For example, looked at unemotionally and objectively, slavery is the most effective employment model for maximising shareholder profit. But, of course, slavery is no more morally acceptable than Jonathan Swift’s highly cost-effective “Modest Proposal” of selling off poor Irish children as meat for the dining tables of the rich. So on the whole, we don’t do it. And yet it persists. (Slavery, that is, not eating Irish children). Lurking down there in the distant reaches of the supply chain. Bendy rules. Shadowy places…

But even if you are lucky enough not to be a slave, being an employee, especially an unskilled worker in a country with a large and generally poor population, puts you immediately at a disadvantage on the balance of power scales. The fact that you can be replaced at the drop of a hat seriously limits your leverage against the temptations of those in power to squeeze you for just that little bit more…

That’s why the right to form or join trade unions – and for those unions to be able function effectively – is so crucial. 

Britain was the birthplace of trade unionism. The right to bargain collectively – for workers to negotiate jointly as a workforce with their employer – was born out of the choking, grinding engine of Britain’s industrial revolution – and spread around the world.

Yet the current British government is continuing the process, begun by Margaret Thatcher, of destroying the power and influence of the trade unions.

Thatcher’s rise to power, according to the BBC, “coincided with a spreading belief that union power was getting out of hand.”  And the one thing that the powers that be fear more than anything is the counterpower that trade unions provide. But it’s one thing to rebalance the scales of power -it’s quite another to keep kicking a man when he is down. To destroy his power altogether. That’s just not cricket.

The Trade Union Bill currently working its way through the corridors of power is described by human rights campaigners such as Liberty as a “major attack on civil liberties”.  The bill proposes fines of up to £20,000 for breaking rules on Tweeting and wearing armbands – it’s “little” things like that that chip away at power.

A lot of that choking and grinding that went on during the industrial revolution was by workers – like the young Sheffield steel workers coughing with a sound “as if air were driven through a wooden tube” from “Grinder’s disease”. (The same symptoms are familiar to many workers today, like those in Rajasthan’s sandstone quarries producing the world’s paving stones. Nowadays we call it silicosis.) Deprived of the right to organise, these workers resorted to violence.

The same has been known to happen in the tea plantations of India where workers who have been exploited and suppressed for generations are then deprived of their wages for months – with no outlet for their rage and frustration they have been known to boil over and kill their manager.  Sometimes even when trade unions do exist but cease to genuinely represent workers they will rise up, like Munnar’s women did.

So the powers that be should be wary of pushing too hard to deprive workers of their right to organise and to strike. Because grievance against injustice will always find a way to make itself heard. It could sound like the gentle hissing of a well oiled steam engine where the opposing powers are equally balanced. Or it can sound like the violent explosion that happens when pressure has no other outlet.

But the driving power behind enabling workers to negotiate collectively should not be fear of violence. It should be the fact that not to do is just isn’t cricket. 

Scales symbolise the balance of power, but they also symbolise justice.

That’s why I signed the TUC’s petition to protect the right to strike

 

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